Desert Dreamer is a short and sweet musical game by Derek Andes, made for the Mystical Western Game Jam hosted by Juegos Rancheros on itch.io. Or, to be more accurate, Andes describes his piece as being more of a “musical plant toy” than a game. In that sense, it’s reminiscent of other kinds of browser or desktop toys, like Patatap or Electric Love Potato. It’s meant to pass the time, to experience creating something fleeting in miniature, and to poke one’s head into another reality for a moment, perhaps (probably) as a distraction from our own. These sorts of toys are the virtual equivalent of shaking a snow globe or building a sandcastle, a form of impromptu play that’s always appealed to me. It’s more than just non-productive—it’s anti-productive, impermanent frivolity done entirely for its own sake.
In Desert Dreamer, the player controls an armless, warm-grey individual that looks more like a mushroom sprouted legs than a human being. Using the arrow keys, the player moves the being across the curved horizon of a single screen, bidding them walk through a motley patch of desert cacti, each one mapped to a unique sound. Some are squat and fat and purple with yellow middles, while others are thin, orange branches. Some pop or click while others chime. Moving in a strategic way so as to hit new cacti while a previous sound is still playing can make tones overlap, causing for a brief instance a cute harmony. The player can also have the being sit down among the cacti, looking at the sky, which, clearly on its own timer, will eventually fill with inscrutable glyphs before the game resets. The violet-blue gradient of the sky and violet-pink gradient of the desert suggest a nighttime setting, while greens, yellows, oranges and pinks pop against the background, shaking and bouncing excitedly when touched.
Things chime and bounce and twang thanks to the careless movement of our fungal friend. The sights and sounds are machinic, nostalgic and supernatural; jingling and buzzing fade out like the sound effects of a Windows 3.1 operating system or a musical wind-up toy, but the strange flora that gyrate under the purple sky seem like something from another planet. In a way that’s adorable, and in another way it’s unsettling in that it captures an aesthetic tendency I find in a lot of computer-based art, where one can detect both intense nostalgia and a wistfulness for a totally different reality. There’s a romantic pining for something that never really existed evident in videogames, Vaporwave, anime, and so on. Often that kind of romanticism manifests in reaction, much the same way it does for any social conservative. But it can also indicate a desire for something radically different, and an impulse to find even in old things the seeds of that potential. Desert Dreamer makes no claim to politics, but like the sandcastle or the snow globe, or the wind-up toy or the old computer, it provides a self-contained and ethereal release for that desire we all have for wonder and for alterity. It’s also a cute and colourful way to procrastinate for 10 minutes.
These sorts of toys are therapeutic in that they can help break up the drudgery of the day, giving the player a small, mediated space for some creativity. In that sense games like this tend to oppose deep introspection or analysis, but they do serve a purpose, be it for mental relaxation, mild distraction, or for stirring up creative juices with its strange sounds and imagery. These little, seemingly irrelevant trinkets sometimes lead to great self-realizations. In fact, if I had to slap this game with one criticism it’s that there simply isn’t enough of it. It’s too small to sustain engagement for more than a brief moment, and it’s hard to actually create any coherent harmony out of the sounds presented. But I’m forgiving: this toy was made for a jam and few toys like it are actually rounded out with a broad selection of tools and a big space to play around in (Patatap stands nearly alone in this regard.) Perhaps Desert Dreamer can’t create the next great experimental tune, but as a mini creative space it could inspire that in some predisposed and talented player.
There are tomes of writing about the intersection of work and play, or of “playbour”, but stuff like Desert Dreamer encourages play without us easily being able to categorize it as a form of work, or of resembling work. It’s not just that it doesn’t feel like work—lots of play doesn’t “feel” like work, and gamification is increasingly used in corporate spaces to force increases in productivity—toys like Desert Dreamer are aggressively anti-work. Instead they allow us to take a moment to sit under the sky, wondering about the stars, listening to the wind whistle through the leaves.